This 1941 novel is what you may choose as a holiday book or, as I did, to read its near 600 pages over the Christmas period. Easy to hold up as an example of the classic realist text, yet therein lies one of its greatest mysteries: Gunn, cinematic in his descriptive powers, acutely penetrating in his observations of psychological relationships, and with a belly full of fire to locate human injustice in a broad context of the tradition of tragedy, pulls off the trick of making these realisms subordinate to an unstated but hauntingly real elsewhere. To skipper a narrative, incidentally, is an essential part of the novels themes; to feel confident under the direction of an author is whence authority should be submitted to by a crew, by a reader. Gunn is much bigger than this, sos the novel. Light, storm, glistening, fog, darkness, skies bluer than cornflowers, human forms as beautifully evoked as anything Byron ever did, plagues, purposeless suffering, hardship, all mixed in, always. More to the point, the overall tone of Gunns vision is one not of individual virtue or vice, for one thing these appear as mixed as everything else in any fully expressed individual, but the realisation of the wrongness of separating single from whole, individual from community, community from landscape. There is a somewhat hilarious bar room brawl in Stornoway when the strong hero Roddie breaks out of his constraints, but Gunn allows the smile as he always does but never loses the gentle gravitas (elsewhere described as like God thinking) Men craved for anything, for fights, for drink, for death, anything to break the horror that discipline kept rigid. This is a book of sweetness and light.
not me.) Neil Gunn brings the atmosphere and perils of the sea into this novel along with the growth of Finn, his coming-of-age time, and the trials of a small fishing community in Scotland. His mother was reluctant to allow Finn to even think of going to sea... Although wordy at times the author gives the reader a lot to think about and not just pictures of what life in Scotland used to be for so many that were living on the edge of poverty. The reader cannot help being moved at poor Catrines plight already; losing her husband at such a young age, she lives for her son throughout the book. At times the book moved very quickly because I was right there with Finn, hoping someday to become a sailor himself and obtain his very own ship. In fact, when Finn lifted his mind, he saw the clean green seas running, and knew that freedom was there, and adventure, and the song of mans strength.
Early in the book a whole chapter is devoted to Finn's early encounter with a butterfly, which is beautiful and touching as it explores the development of his relationship with nature "As he rounded the hazel treea butterfly rose from his feet. It's a coming of age novel, not just in terms of Finn as an individual but for the communities that are developing the new industry of herring fishing as a way to secure themselves a brighter future.
At another level it is a sensitive and perceptive portrayal of the relationship of the three main characters: Catrine, her son Finn, and Roddie, the man she marries. There are still difficult times, Gunn concedes, yet the community triumphs over adversities such as shipwreck and plague and builds a new life for itself out of the ashes of the old. Her son is born; she loses Kirsty, her dear cousin; the courtship with Roddie is long and fraught with difficulty, as is Finns adolescence: yet at the end of the book there is harmony and accord with the two men in her life, and contentment for her. It is a painful journey at times for Finn and for Catrine. His mother, freed of her past obligation to Tormad, draws closer to Roddie and Finn must come to terms with Freud and their marriage! Gunn shows us the Oedipal boy, torn by his love for his mother and his youthful hero-worship of Roddie, unable to come to terms with their needs as two people in love about to make a new life together. He sees the circle of birth, work, marriage, childbearing, maturity, old age and death and understands his place in it as well as Catrines and Roddies. Gunn shows us his homecoming as a changed man in the scene where he brings gifts to Catrine, Roddie and their baby.
A wonderful portrait of a community changing from crofters to fisherman, overcoming the scars of the clearances and the hardship of their daily lives, but also the best depiction I've ever read of a boy's feelings as he grows up.
I found the first half of the novel very dry, and in each of Gunns novels Ive read I have found it quite hard to identify with his characters. Based on the 3 books Ive read, he makes his lead characters flawed but also creates a heroic element to their personalities, and that is certainly true of Finn. The part of the book that features the islands known as The Seven Hunters is exciting enough, and there is a beautiful chapter near the end when Finns fishing boat is blown by a storm to the island of North Uist.
Although nearly all his 20 novels are set in the Highlands of Scotland, he is not a regional author in the narrow sense of that description; his novels reflect a search for meaning in troubled times, both past and present, a search that leads him into the realms of philosophy, archaeology, folk tradition and metaphysical speculation. His first novel, The Grey Coast (1926), a novel in the realist tradition and set in Caithness in the 1920's, occupied an important position in the literary movement known as the Scottish Renaissance. Some of Gunn's later books, whilst not ignoring the uglier aspects of the modern world, touch more on metaphysical speculation in a vein that is not without humour.